All the media world's a-twitter about the New Yorker cover caricaturing Barack and Michelle Obama as the right's terrorist nightmare: fist-bumping in mideast mufti in the Oval Office, burning the flag, a portrait of Osama bin Laden over the fireplace, a machine-gun slung across Michelle's broad shoulder.
McCain denounced the cover and Obama defended the magazine's first amendment rights while suggesting its weak attempt at satire had "fueled misconceptions." The people who think Obama is a concealed agent of an evil empire reportedly feel validated and many of his supporters feel offended. Beyond the fact that July is a slow news time, which leads starving commercial media to feed on any scrap of controversy they can forage, I don't know exactly what to think.
Indeed, almost everything that can be said about the cartoon has some validity.
It misses the mark in an especially dumb way: while candidates are frequently caricatured, this feeble attempt stands out because it is based on false smears about the candidate, not on poking at his actual personal or political foibles. Cartoons of John Kerry lampooned his patrician manner, but I don't recall seeing a New Yorker cover depicting him as a coward and shirker in Vietnam, a false story the Swift Boat group promoted to smear him. President Clinton was caricatured for his womanizing reputation and for the hair-splitting he engaged in to evade questions about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, but I don't recall seeing a New Yorker cover depicting him arranging the assassination of Vincent Foster, as the lunatic fringe has charged.
People have been forwarding me emails about the cover. Some of them point out that caricaturing Senator Obama as what our current president likes to call an "Islamic terrorist" is not so much anti-Obama as anti-Muslim, comparable to depicting Senator Lieberman in ultra-Orthodox costume, burning the American flag as he mounts the Israeli flag over the Capitol. I don't think I will get much argument when I say that is a New Yorker cover we will never see.
Playing the game as usual would have been caricaturing Obama for his uptightness, the evidence of a less than robust sense of humor, or his self-image as a bridge person—these are the things that can easily be exaggerated and lampooned the way cartoonists pick on Senator McCain's age or Senator Clinton's shifting just-folks accents. The New Yorker made a fundamental category fumble, like running onto the football field in a baseball uniform, swinging a bat.
The observation keeps being made that the outrage of those who are offended by the cover actually expresses a kind of snobbery: they get the joke, they say, but worry that people who aren't as sophisticated will see the New Yorker as sending the message that Obama is a secret traitor. In fact, today's New York Times carried an op-ed piece by Timothy Egan entitled "They Get It," chiding that snobbery and offering reassurances that it is misguided.
But to me, the question goes deeper. The anxiety that people will see the cover as advocacy rather than sendup expresses the intensity of hope for Obama's candidacy and the keen, almost instinctual, desire to protect him from attack. For so many people, the presence of this man in the race symbolizes the possibility of healing the body politic. That possibility is so dear to them, so long coming and so fragile as against the long march through the Bush family that they can barely stand to hope for it. Under these circumstances, any attack triggers a full arsenal of defense.
Obama is an ordinary human being, as people keep reminding me, donning his pants one leg at a time. He cannot singlehandedly transmute the dross of politics into golden-age democracy. But what he can do is so devoutly desired that many of us can't bear anything to disrupt it: to show that the citizens of this nation are bigger than our prejudices and to enlist a much wider group of us in the essential democratic work that needs to be done. Over the weekend, I saw a production of Lisa Kron's wonderful play, Well. The last few lines, portraying the inspiring remarks of a lifelong social justice activist, say it for me:
This organization is about people. It's about busy people and lonely people. Happy people and frightened people. Young people who want a good life for their children, and old people who want to know that somebody cares. People so busy that they don't have time to wonder if anything they are doing is worthwhile, and people who face day after day of having nothing to do but wish that someone might need them. This is the purpose of integration. This is what integration means. It means weaving into the whole even the parts that are uncomfortable or don't seem to fit. Even the parts that are complicated and painful. What is more worthy of our time and our love than that?
In the heightened emotional climate created by this intersection of hopes and fears, normally smart people become dazed and confused. The New Yorker ran a silly cartoon cover that missed the mark by so many miles the editors' judgment must have been taking a vacation. The people who are worried that the New Yorker cover will lend aid and comfort to the far right have vastly overstated both the denseness of their opponents and the influence The New Yorker has on them.
Indeed, the general atmosphere of bewilderment seems to have leaked across even the most staid of news media. Did you see the "research" today's New York Times carried on page one under the headline "Poll Finds Obama Candidacy Isn't Closing Divide on Race"? Will we see a piece tomorrow that says "Poll Finds Obama Candidacy Isn't Closing the Class Divide"? Followed by "Poll Finds Obama Candidacy Isn't Cleaning the Air"? Can you spell "fatuous"?
The Times reports in tones of alarm that more people of color think race relations are bad than do white people, and that a far larger percentage of black people than white are crazy about Obama. Was the entire thinking contingent of the paper's editorial staff on vacation when this statement of the obvious was fluffed up into news? The most hilarious part is this: the survey found that "only" 31 percent of whites had a favorable opinion of Obama (31 percent need to know more). Skip a few lines and you find that 35 percent of whites have a favorable opinion of McCain (35 percent need to know more). Read the fine print and you learn that the margin of sampling error ranges from 3 to 6 points. Ooops!
This just in: the silly season has started with a vengeance. Brain freeze may be contagious. For your own safety, limit your intake of commercial media commentary, drink plenty of fluids, breathe deeply and repeat this mantra at regular intervals: Media frenzy can't touch an uncolonized mind.